Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders caused a stir this week when he said felons should have the right to vote even while they are in prison. When pressed on whether sex offenders or even the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote from behind bars, Sanders held his ground.
“Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that. Not going to let that person vote,’ you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said during a CNN town hall.
Sanders’ position was not surprising. He represents one of the two states—the other is Maine—that allows prisoners to vote. Sanders said that the “inherent American right to participate in our democracy” should not be infringed while an individual is incarcerated.
The idea is not all that unique. At least 21 countries, including Canada, Germany and Israel, protect prisoners voting rights. Proponents argue, among other things, that prisoners do not give up all their rights when they go to prison and that the country should do all it can to encourage people to vote rather than disenfranchising potential voters.
However, going to prison is, by definition, a punishment. Incarceration follows a determination by way of the rule of law that the individual must be separated from society and that certain rights granted to them by birth will be denied.
True, a number of those rights follow the individual into prison. They cannot be subjected to torture or abuse, sexual abuse or assault. They are entitled to certain accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They retain First Amendment rights of speech and religion, although they can be limited.
But it is also important to point out that prisoners are denied the full range of rights enjoyed by law abiding citizens. Their privacy and movements are greatly limited. Their mail can be screened. Their cells and person can be searched without a warrant. And, of course, they lose their 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Advocates of prisoners voting often describe the best-case scenario where participating in the democratic process is part of rehabilitation for a non-violent drug offender. Okay, but what about the worst cases, of which there are many? A prisoner convicted of murder—the ultimate denial of rights to take someone’s life—can exercise their right to influence elections and policy.
West Virginia has had more than its share of election fixers and vote buyers. Imagine if the scofflaws sent to jail for violating election laws were then able to vote! That would be the definition of ironic.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1974 decision Richardson v. Ramirez that under the 14th Amendment states have the right to disenfranchise persons convicted of participating in “rebellion or other crimes [emphasis added]. After Maine and Vermont, most of the rest of the states have a pathway for felons to regain their voting privileges. In West Virginia, an individual can re-register to vote after they have completed their sentence, including prison, parole and probation.
That’s the most sensible policy. It meets the standard for punishment, but also allows for a person to regain their ability to participate in the democratic process after they have paid their debt.